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Vivian Howard’s Deep Run Roots Keep Her Grounded as Her Star Rises

By Chris Privett | October 6, 2016 | Explore NC

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First, a hit television show. Now, a book, no doubt destined for the best-seller list. What next? A #1 single on the pop charts?

Well, probably not. But Vivian Howard – star of PBS’ A Chef’s Life and co-owner of the Chef & The Farmer restaurant in Kinston – is going out on tour, which will delight her millions of loyal fans.

For the release of her book, Deep Run Roots, Vivian will visit cities around the East Coast and Midwest, offering fans the chance to meet their reluctant hero and even sample some of the recipes featured in the book.

“We’re driving a food truck to some of the locations on the tour, which no one has really done before,” Vivian explained. “We’ll be serving things that are specific to Eastern North Carolina, like Tom Thumb (sausages), our fish stew that’s finished with whole eggs, Pepsi-and-peanut floats, my mom’s chicken and rice. We’re trying to take our region’s dishes and share them with a larger audience. It’s all about sharing the story of North Carolina.”

Vivian believes sharing the story of North Carolina with the rest of America can help change perceptions.

vivian howard
Courtesy of

“The stories in the book more than anything show that people in Eastern North Carolina are like people everywhere else,” Vivian said. “The stories are about family and tradition and if someone reads the book, they’ll see that those things are the same everywhere. I want the book to demystify the idea that Southerners are in some ways different from other people.”

Another myth Vivian wants to bust is the notion that southern cooking is unhealthy.

“Traditionally, our diets were based on vegetables and grains, with a little bit of meat,” Vivian added. “We’re associated with barbecue and fried chicken, but both of those things would have been celebration foods and not something families ate every day.”

“That’s the way families should look at meals today, we should eat more grains, more vegetables, more fruits. If you eat meat, maybe it shouldn’t be at the center of every plate. We should celebrate with things that are luxurious and tasty like fried chicken and barbecue and layered cakes and pies, all the things we love here in the South. But our menu on a day-to-day basis shouldn’t revolve around those things.”

When cooking for her own family – which includes two young children – Vivian tries to be creative in preparing nutritious meals.

“My kids are normal kids and they like the same things other kids like, so we eat a lot of spaghetti,” she explained. “But I’ll put whole spinach into their spaghetti sauce so there’s a green vegetable in there. Or instead of having spaghetti with noodles, I’ll put spaghetti sauce over steamed broccoli.”

“We eat my mom’s chicken and rice a lot. And I’ll stir in turnip greens or spinach or kale so we have another vegetable in there. I like to make what my husband Ben calls healthy soups, just a whole chicken that’s simmered, then the chicken comes out and I put in lots of vegetables and Parmesan rinds to flavor the broth. For Ben and the kids, I’ll make mashed potatoes and serve the soup over the potatoes to make it richer.”

Nutrition is one reason why Vivian and her restaurant, Chef & The Farmer, support the farm-to-fork movement that promotes eating foods supplied directly from local and regional farms. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina believes farm-to-fork is a healthy alternative to the processed foods found in most grocery stores. Vivian sees other important benefits of farm-to-fork.

“Farm-to-fork to me is really about community and making sure your dollars help support the people who are doing work in your community,” Vivian said. “It’s about learning more about your food sources and understanding where your food comes from, knowing that a potato comes out of the ground and appreciating the work that went into planting it, nurturing it and bringing it to your plate.”

vivian howard
Photographer: Rex Miller

With her busy schedule growing even more hectic with the release of Deep Run Roots, Vivian is trying to be mindful of her own health.

“I like to exercise, but I haven’t been able to do a lot of that these last couple of months,” she said. “I hope to get back on that train when we’re done with the book tour. Meanwhile, I try to eat a lot of vegetables and a lot of fruit to keep me going.”

The fall harvest yields some of Vivian’s favorite southern produce: “Next to early summer, fall is my favorite season. I love turnip greens and turnip roots. Sweet potatoes are kind of a quintessential fall ingredient and one that speaks to the culture of Eastern North Carolina. We grow more sweet potatoes here than anywhere else in the world.”

With the book tour taking her away from home for much of October and November, Vivian looks forward to spending some time with her family. Then she’ll plan her next move.

“When I’m done with this tour, I’ll have to re-charge a little bit,” she said. “I will have spent a lot of time away from my family on this tour, so I’m hoping that the winter and spring are really about spending time at home with my kids. Then I’ll figure out what my next book will be about.”